What Does It Mean To Be “Confessional” (E.g., In The PCA)?

Becoming Self-Consciously Confessional

When I was introduced to Reformed theology, piety, and practice I do not think that very many people were talking about being “confessional.” Indeed, the idea of creeds (e.g., the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed etc) confessions (e.g., the Westminster Confession or the Belgic Confession), and catechisms was unknown to me until I began attending St John’s Reformed Church in 1980–81. [Speaking of St. John’s please pray for pastor Lee Johnson, who needs your help. Read more». St John’s is a faithful congregation but not wealthy]. Of course in the early months and years of my Reformed journey everything was new. There was a great lot to sort. As I began read more and even in seminary, where we discussed the confessions and where I took two courses covering both the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity (i.e., the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort) I do not recall hearing a lot of discussion about being “confessional.” Typically we distinguished between “conservative” and “liberal.” We were taught to think of ourselves first as evangelicals and secondly as Reformed.

In this period I was, shall we say, schizophrenic. In some ways my practice of ministry was pragmatist (largely under the influence of the church-growth literature). I believed and loved the Heidelberg Catechism but there were ways in which my theology, piety, and practice was out of sync with it. The authors, and framers of the catechism assumed, taught, and interpreted Scripture in light of the Luther’s distinction between law and gospel. I did not. The authors and framers of the catechism correlated the covenant of works with law and the covenant of grace with gospel. I did not, at least not consistently. I was a legal preacher. I consistently put the congregation back under the covenant of works while simultaneously trying to push them toward contemporary worship, so that we could grow and be “successful.”  Under my leadership we gave up the evening service in favor of Bible studies. In the providence of God, it was a study of Galatians that helped to open my eyes to some of the mistakes I had been making but still I was mostly assuming that whatever I was thinking of doing was at least not contrary to the catechism. It was not yet shaping my thinking. Had you asked me whether I agreed with Heidelberg 65 and the Reformed doctrine of the due use of the means of grace I would have said yes but my actions were contradictory. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

During my post-graduate research, for which I spent much time reading and translating primary sources from the sixteenth century Reformed theologians and a good deal of secondary literature (i.e., books and articles about the primary sources, authors, and settings) I began to see some dissonance between the way I learned Reformed theology and the way it had been understood during the classical (i.e., formative) period. My sense of that dissonance grew as I began teaching Reformed theology first at the undergraduate level and then in a seminary context. Teaching courses on the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms gave me an opportunity to learn the documents, and their background, and intent more deeply. I continued to become more aware of the tension between the way the framers of our confessions looked at Reformed theology, piety, and practice and the way we tend to look at them.

Somewhere between the time I began my post-grad research in 1993—was it reading D. G. Hart’s PhD diss. on Machen? It is still the best-written PhD diss. I have ever read—and c. 2006 I came into contact with the language of “being confessional.” It was in this period that I began to see that there was a difference between assuming that whatever I thought must be what the catechisms and confessions intended to say and being confessional. There is a difference between nominally affirming the catechisms and confessions and actually allowing them to shape my theology, piety, and practice. In this period I began to hear and read the word confessionalist. It was against this background that I wrote Recovering the Reformed Confession, in which I tried to share what I had learned and to invite the reader to join me in the recovery process.

In Statu Confessionis

I am confident that I am not the only pastor who was guilty of assuming more than knowing that my theology, piety, and practice were deeply informed by the church’s confession of God’s Word. The denomination that I served from 1987 to 1998, for most of my time,  used only the Heidelberg Catechism. I had read and studied the Belgic and the Canons but they did not live in my bones, as it were. As I began to teach them, however, they began to affect me and my theology, piety, and practice. I began to see that my assumptions were not theirs. My concerns were not theirs. E.g., the classical Reformed theologians tended to move from their doctrine of God to worship. The rule of worship was not the product of a censorious spirit (as I had assumed) but their understanding of the holiness of God. Somehow I had come to assume that, in the late twentieth century, Reformed theology had matured beyond the Reformed theology of the classical period but my  assumption of superiority was ill-founded. I found that they were the teachers and I was the student. My posture changed rather dramatically.

As I read the dialogue between the National Partnership (A hitherto secret organization within the PCA. See the PCA resources below), who generally reflect a more broadly evangelical, liturgically latitudinarian approach and their confessionalist critics (e.g., the Gospel Reformation Network) I see the former asserting, “but we are confessional.” I do not think, however, that the two sides are using the adjective confessional in the same sense.

In light of what I have read (see the PCA Resources below) and in light of my own journey, my impression is that the progressive wing of the PCA tends to assume (as I did) that their theology, piety, and practice is confessional. My reading and experience tells me that it is quite possible practically to contradict the standards while formally affirming them.

Part of the problem here is the PCA’s decision to adopt a “good faith” approach to confessional subscription. This means practically that there are as many versions of the standards as there are presbyteries. I have written about this at length in RRC and here (see the PCA Resources below) so I will not repeat that material here except to say that underlying the so-called “good faith” approach to subscription is the assumption that what God’s Word teaches is one thing and what the church confesses is, to some degree or other (quatenus), something else. In contrast, the original understanding among the Reformed churches in Europe and the British Isles was that the churches confess what they do because (quia) the Scriptures say what they do.

In RRC, I was critical of  the “insofar as” approach to confessing. The National Partnership (NP) takes a broader approach and at least some of their opponents take a narrower approach. Obviously, my sympathies are with those who want to close the gap but as a matter of principle both are weak forms of subscription. The “insofar as” approach is like pregnancy. In the early weeks of pregnancy it does not show but after a few months it does. At the end of nine months it is completely clear what is happening but it was the same pregnancy the whole time.

Nevertheless, given the history and ethos of the PCA it is unlikely that it is going to abandon the “insofar as” approach to subscription. What might be done to move the denomination toward a healthier relationship to the Standards? First, the PCA progressives should admit that they no longer agree with significant portions of the Standards. Were we to add up the exceptions that are regularly granted in the various presbyteries we are looking at a fair bit of confessional real estate. That real estate is probably  even greater when we consider the several ways in which the theology, piety, and practice confessed by the church, in the standards, is practically marginalized without presbytery review.

Let us assume that, in light of the pragmatism and crypto-politicking exposed in the NP email cache, the progressive wing of the PCA is smitten in conscience. Might an increased self-consciousness reveal to them how great is the distance that has developed between the standards and the theology, piety, and practice embodied by the NP? In my experience pragmatism was a failure. It did not produce what was promised. Neglecting the ordinary means of grace did not produce fruit. What fruit has come of the abandonment of the evening service in the PCA? Has it led to greater sanctity, greater love for and commitment to the Lord’s Day and the means of grace or less?  The church growth movement was offering us all, in effect, a trade: our principles for a pragmatism that would necessarily, mechanically (e.g., the so-called “law of large numbers”), produce numerical growth? How has that trade worked out for the PCA? What if the theology, piety, and practice embodied in and envisioned by the Standards is significantly and, in some cases, even radically different than that which has been cultivated in the early twenty-first century in significant portions of the PCA?

To be confessional is to relate not merely to the form of words (though that is not insignificant). It is not to assume that the Standards must agree with us nor is it to be satisfied with a belief that what the church is saying and doing does not disagree with the Standards. To be confessional is to ask what the Standards say and intend? What are the implications of the Standards for one’s theology, piety, and practice? What did the framers, in their context, intend for the churches to say and do? Ask yourself this: if your favorite, dearest practice was found to be contrary to the Standards would you give it up and reform your practice to conform to the language and intent of the Standards? A confessional Presbyterian is willing to be corrected by the Standards. What does it mean to do something in good faith? It means to act with “honesty or sincerity of intention” (Oxford American Dictionary). Were a Presbyterian to realize that his theology, piety, and practice is at variance with the Standards, does not good faith require that he recognize that reality and face it squarely? In such a case he has two choices: to bring his theology, piety, and practice into conformity with the Standards or to admit that he is no longer able to subscribe the Standards in good faith.

It is not easy to be confessional. It is certainly not fashionable but ordinarily ministers and elders are not forced to enter the ministry of a confessional Presbyterian church. In the USA there are innumerable options for broadly evangelical ministry outside of the confessional Reformed churches. Those who, after a fearless self-inventory, find themselves no longer able to affirm the theology, piety, and practice of the Standards will be received warmly in those places where the Confessions are either optional or regarded as interesting historical documents whose time has passed.

Whatever transpires Reformed folk ought to be clear that the word confessional cannot mean two contradictory things simultaneously. The proper meaning is a hearty, intentional, thoughtful agreement with the words of the Standards and the intent behind them. To be confessional is allow the Standards to shape one’s teaching, approach to God, and practice of the faith.

The original sense of “acid test” referred to a test to determine whether gold is genuine. When a miner brings back his findings some of it looks like gold but is not. It lacks the substance of gold. Whatever protests one makes about allegiance to the Standards, in the Reformed churches practice is the acid test of authenticity. Both sides in the PCA cannot be confessional at the same time, in the same sense. The test then is whose practice of the faith most closely aligns with that envisioned by the church as confessed in the Standards?

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. As I read this, I heard Allen Iverson in my head from the Heidelcast intro:

    “What are we talking about?”

    Not a game, not a game, not a game—we talking about practice.

    Also there’s the “degrees of separation” in our Reformed experience. Howard Hart of St. John’s administered my candidate’s exam back in 1996.

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